. . .
This, said our teacher, is the beauty of metaphor.
It opens doors.
What I could not know then
was how being a sifter
would help me all year long.
. . . — from “Sifter” by Naomi Shihab Nye
When, in the course of first-year English, it becomes necessary to pause and explain the value of metaphor to the more literal-minded, I often give a little “life is like” exercise: Life is like a branching tree. Life is like a river. Life is like a journey. But also, less obviously, life is like an onion, or the movement of clouds, or a jigsaw puzzle or a filling station. The assignment is meant to offer an opportunity to notice how each image may become a lens or a frame, open a door, invite its own surprising logic.
While the responses are sometimes a little flat-footed, stopping when the obvious has been made even more painfully obvious (rivers move and bend, trees root and branch, life has layers), some of them grow longer, become whimsical, drop into serious personal reflection. Some of the pieces are always moving and memorable.
The last lines of Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Sifter” move me in the same way: a sweet, playful poem about children imagining themselves as kitchen implements suddenly reminds us how a metaphor can open an avenue of self-understanding or grounding or hope. If we are sifters, we live our lives learning how to hold a delicate balance between holding on and letting go—learning to identify as we sift what it is we must hold onto and what we must let go.
My favorite seven-year-old recently completed and proudly displayed her first science fair project. She made different kinds of water filters, noticing how the water looked before it passed through gravel, sand, tiny mesh, coarse paper. We talked about how water comes to our taps through filters, and how we rely on those filters to help protect our health. I don’t think she’ll ever take water quite for granted after this. I also think of how many other things she may begin to notice have to be filtered, and how she may begin to seek and find what it takes to make an adequate filter—one that will keep the conversational detritus, aggressive marketing, bullying behaviors, or other harms from passing into the still well-lit quiet spaces of her inner life where pleasure in her own lovely being is still unpolluted.
We gather metaphors where we find them, like mushrooms. They give us our lives back on new terms. They are a little like mushrooms. You can find them in odd places. Some of them are poison. Some of them are truffles.